Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The "Chinese Laundry": A Hintonburg institution worth remembering

In the late 19th century, a new enterprise arrived in Ottawa and indeed, throughout North America. Following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, many of the immigrant Chinese workers found themselves with few options, and a largely unaccepting Canadian population willing to welcome them to their communities, or provide them jobs. Furthermore, since these hard-working labourers had earned very little pay for their work on the railroad, many had barely enough money to survive week-to-week, let alone any savings of significance to allow them to establish businesses, build houses, or invest.

One niche area where these individuals found a calling was in the laundry industry. The setting of the time is best described by an article on the Library and Archives Canada website:

"In an era before automatic washing machines, doing laundry was hard work. Water needed to be boiled, clothes hand-scrubbed and shirts starched in order to be ironed smooth. Anyone who could afford it would send out their laundry to be done. In cities, single men worked in factories, banks and offices. They lived in boarding houses or apartment hotels and they too needed their clothes washed. Chinese-run laundries were found in cities, small towns and villages throughout the Prairies, Central Canada and the Maritimes. Laundries were a good way for a labourer to go into business for himself once he had paid off the debts he owed for getting to Canada. It did not cost much to start a laundry. All one required was a stove to heat water and dry the clothes, and a space large enough to hang laundry to dry in the winter. Of course, the laundryman also needed kettles, washtubs, scrubbing boards and soap. White men left this job to the Chinese because it was viewed as women's work. Moreover, it was not a popular job. Laundrymen worked long hours six and even seven days a week. They did not earn much because prices were low, due to competition from other washhouses. White men ran steam laundries that handled large orders of wash from hotels and hospitals. A lot of money was needed to start steam laundries."

Thus by the late 1880s, most cities in Canada began to see the arrival of Chinese workers opening hand laundry shops. The first Chinese business in Ottawa was opened in October of 1887 by Wing On.

Ottawa Journal - October 19, 1887, announcing the arrival of the first
Chinese laundry in Ottawa, which of course included some racist commentary.

Wing On opened his landmark shop at 203 Sparks Street in Ottawa, just east of Bank Street, next to the old Dominion Hall hotel. in an old stone 3-and-a-half storey building that was at one time a hotel itself. He shared the main floor with a dentist, while residing in a converted boarding house room upstairs. He was only 20 years of age when he made his start in the laundry business.

Dominion Hall on Sparks Street in the 1890s. Unfortunately, the Wing On
laundry location is just out of view on the right edge of the photo.
(Source: LAC PA-008843)

Within a year, Wing On had moved across the street to a smaller, shorter, but newer brick building at 200 Sparks Street, where he would remain in business for many years. But he now had competition in Ottawa; two other Chinese laundries opened in 1888: Sam Lee at 574 Sussex Street, and Sam Wah at 166 Rideau Street.

The popularity of this type of business only grew, and the Chinese laundry market exploded in Ottawa in the 1890s. By 1895, there would already be a total of 12. Competition would be strong, but the market was large enough to support it, and the popularity of Chinese laundries grew each year. Below is the earliest newspaper advertisement I could find for Chinese laundries in Ottawa, taken out by Wing On and Wing Mow in 1891.

Ottawa Journal - February 17, 1891

The Journal ran an article in 1895 theorizing how the industry operated, and how Chinese sons were arriving in Canada and entering the laundryman workforce.

Journal - July 6, 1895

While business may have been good, these new citizens encountered many struggles. They suffered an unbelievable amount of racism. They were victims of discrimination, had no capital, encountered language barriers and the vast majority lived in poverty, the entire community was "virtually reduced to the lowest socio-economic class of society from around the turn of the century until the Depression years."

Here the Ottawa Labour and Trades Council in 1895 voted to restrict all of its members from using Chinese laundries. "The Chinese were driving the white men out of British Colombia and they would do the same in Ottawa if they were patronized. They are a curse to the city...and the sooner they are driven from it the better." Even the Journal itself in covering the meeting leads off the article with a racist headline:

Ottawa Journal - September 26, 1895

But one fact strongly illustrates the impressive impact of these laundries: There were 6,919 Chinese immigrants residing in Ontario in 1900, and there were 2,508 Chinese laundries in operation.

Throughout this era, politicians searched out options to shut down or limit the laundries. Toronto council in 1901 implemented at $50 tax on laundries, while the city of Hull did the same, taxing them at $25 apiece. The newspaper held back no punches "This is intended for laundries in general, but is more particularly intended to affect the Chinese. Many of the people of Hull feel that the number of Chinese laundries should be restrained, on the ground that the Chinese themselves are of no practical benefit to the city, going there simply for the purpose of making whatever money they can, and of spending as little as possible."

In 1902, J.G. Kilt of Ottawa, well-known newspaper publisher and President of a railroad company, went to Ottawa city council to fight the growth of the laundries, insisting that they should be confined to certain areas. "Mr. Kilt proposes to build, but says he won't if he is liable to have a Chinese laundry established next door" said the Ottawa Citizen. "If so," concludes Mr. Kilt, "I will certainly forego the pleasure of building and try to establish an industry on my property to rival Chinamen. Before taking such action, however, I appeal to you for even handed justice. If I don't get it I feel perfectly satisfied that I am well able to look after my own interests." Council took the request from such a prominent citizen very seriously, and acted quickly on it. They followed Hull and Toronto's lead by implementing a $25 tax on laundries in Ottawa, as well as installing meter systems on the businesses to measure water supply (likely the first instance of monitoring water usage in Ottawa).

The explosive growth continued however, and by 1904 even saw Chinese laundries opening inside of houses on residential streets in major centers like Toronto. Residents protested this for Ottawa, but at the time nothing in the municipal law prevented them from opening.

In the fall of 1904, the first Chinese restaurant in Ottawa opened at the corner of Albert and Metcalfe. This unique endeavour also became quite a novelty, and again soon led to a surge in other Chinese restaurants opening in Ottawa.

Ottawa Journal - August 6, 1904

Newspapers would even report on the alleged unsanitary conditions of the laundry shops:

Ottawa Journal - May 9, 1912
The operators of the shops were subject to a lot of robberies, physical attacks, and pranksters, and even accusations of their causing outbreaks of diseases such as leprosy and smallpox. The newspapers of the 1890s and early 1900s were full of such stories.

But the hard-working immigrants would prevail, and by 1916, the number of Chinese laundries in Ottawa would peak at 83. The numbers would decline slightly, perhaps due to the depression and economic struggles associated with WWI, but through the 1920's and early 1930's the number of Chinese laundry shops in Ottawa would remain between 60-70. In 1937, there were 52, down to 36 in 1949, and 23 in 1956. The final shop would close in 1976, and that last shop was located in our own neighbourhood of Hintonburg.

The Chinese Laundries of Hintonburg 

As Hintonburg was not only the fastest growing suburb in Ottawa in the 1890s, but also had a very strong working-class population, it was inevitable that the Chinese laundries would find their way to the popular village as well.

Sure enough, in 1898, Wong Sing opened the first Chinese laundry in Hintonburg, on Wellington Street (then still called Richmond Road). The newspaper noted the event on February 15th:

Ottawa Journal - February 15, 1898

Wong Sing was only a teenager when he opened his shop in Hintonburg. His exact age and birth date are difficult to confirm (the 1901 Census listed him as 19 years old, but the 1911 and 1921 Census both listed him as being born in 1887 - it is extremely doubtful he was 11 when he first arrived in Hintonburg, so the truth is probably somewhere in between).

This snippet from another article in the paper a month later at first made me believe that there may have been a second laundry to open in Hintonburg 1898, but I believe the writer simply misspelled his name, and used the term "another" to mean another in regards to all the laundries opening in Ottawa in general:

Ottawa Journal - March 11, 1898

The location of Wong Sing's first location sadly remains a mystery. Civic addresses in Hintonburg did not yet exist, and the city directory of 1898 gives no clues as to a location on Wellington. And since Hintonburg was in their period of independence from both Nepean Township and the City of Ottawa, no assessment rollbooks exist today from that era, which would have been a useful tool.

What is known is that a year later, in 1899, Wong Sing moved his laundry to what was then #64 Richmond Road, later renumbered 1020 Wellington Street West, in what is now the Hintonburg Public House. His business would remain in this location until 1912.

Ottawa Journal - March 7, 1899

1020 Wellington West in 2015 - the site of Hintonburg's first Chinese
laundry, Wong Sing, from 1899-1921

On the 1901 Census, Wong Sing's reported annual income was $200, which was quite low even for the era. Though the work of a Chinese laundryman was typically an isolated and solitary one, on the 1901 Census, a cousin (58-year-old Low Dow) was listed as residing and working with Wong in the laundry.

Wong Sing would hold a monopoly over the laundry business in Hintonburg until competition arrived in mid-1901, in the name of Lee Kim. The 32-year-old Lee opened a laundry shop at #50 Richmond Road, which became 1004 Wellington Street West (now the site of what was Crome Boyz and later the Raspberry Beret, I believe it is still vacant, ironically next door to the Majestic Laundry). This location would remain a Chinese laundry until 1930. The building sat vacant through the depression years and was torn down in 1939, and later replaced with the triangular-shaped building that exists there now.

But back to Wong Sing for a moment. Wong moved from the Hintonburg Public House location in 1912 to 1069 Wellington Street, near the corner of Merton, where he remained until 1931. That building was demolished in 1932, but Wong Sing moved to his final home, at 1029 Wellington Street (now the site of the large apartment building at 1141 Wellington, the Wong Sing laundry would have looked directly down Fairmont Avenue). Wong appears to have passed away in the mid-1930s, and his business was taken over by Soo Hoo Song and Frank Janes, the latter whom kept the business going until around 1961. The place had become pretty decrepit by that time, as evidenced by the photo of the Wong Sing Laundry from 1960 below. It was torn down shortly afterwards, bringing an end, at least in name, to Hintonburg's original laundry business.

Wong Sing Laundry's final location at 1029 Wellington Street West, in 1960.
(Source: Ottawa Archives CA-20737)

This Wong Sing's location (1029 Wellington) was also incidentally the building in which the first Chinese restaurant in Kitchissippi opened in 1920. It was opened by Lung Wing, who had come to Canada in 1909, and had operated a Chinese laundry in central Ottawa previously. He paid $35 a month to rent the building, which included his residence upstairs. The Chinese restaurant lasted only until 1923, and other than another restaurant which opened briefly in 1927, there would be no other Chinese restaurants in Hintonburg until the late 1950s.

Aside from Wong Sing and Lee Kim (the original two laundrymen) three others sprang up in Hintonburg in the mid-1920s. One opened at 1134 Wellington for a brief period between 1924 and 1927, and another opened at 1091 Wellington between 1924 and the early 1940s (which was known as "Modern Laundry" operated by Samuel Seto).

Further down Wellington Street, near Holland Avenue, Charlie Leung opened his Laundry shop in 1925, near the corner of Hinton at 1213 Wellington (this would basically be where the Daniel O'Connell's patio exists today, next to the bowling alley parking lot). Leung would be successful, eventually taken over by his son Doo-Ting, and remain in business until the early 1960s.

Charlie Leung's Laundry at 1213 Wellington Street in 1960.
(Source: Ottawa Archives - CA-20745)

Even further down Wellington, on Richmond Road in Westboro was a Chinese Laundry operated by Charlie Yon Lee, from 1927 to 1953, at #314 Richmond Road (since demolished, now the site of the Village Quire shop).

The Hintonburgh Hand Laundry Story

Worthy of it's own detailed story is the success of the Ho family and their Hintonburgh Hand Laundry. Not only did they succeed and become one of Hintonburg's most popular businesses, but they also had impressive longevity. They outlived all of the other Chinese laundries in Ottawa, closing in 1976 as Ottawa's last. In fact, when they closed, the Museum of Science & Technology in Ottawa came to buy up all of their equipment.

The story of the Hintonburgh Hand Laundry begins somewhere around 1913-1915 (unfortunately records are difficult to confirm as for many years, the city directories and phone books did not see fit to list Chinese residents as they did everyone else). Lee Kim sold his shop at 1004 Wellington (discussed earlier in this article, the second shop which opened in Hintonburg) to Ta-Fong Ho. Fong was a new arrival to Canada, in his mid-thirties, and had left behind his family in China to open his business in Hintonburg.

In 1916, his 15-year-old son Eng Ho arrived in Canada to help with the business, and in 1920, his second son Lin-Chong Ho came as well, who was just ten years old at the time. Lin-Chong would spend two years attending public school in Hintonburg before being pulled out at age 12 to help run the laundry. Lin-Chong would note in an interview later in his life that he would often go and collect laundry via the street cars.

Between 1930-1931, they moved to 997 Wellington Street (long-demolished building near where Tacolot exists today), and between 1942-1945 they moved to their most well-known location at 1017 Wellington Street, where they would remain until 1976:

The Hintonburgh Hand Laundry at 1017 Wellington Street, circa 1960.
(Source: Ottawa Archives CA-36115-W)

Black Pepper Pub in 2015, in the former Hintonburgh Hand Laundry shop.

Competition was still fierce in the late-1930s and early-1940s. Not only was the Ho's new location just a few doors down from the long-running Wong Sing Laundry (1029 Wellington), but there was some poor relations with the Leung laundry as well, as evidenced by this article below:

Journal - July 20, 1938

The Hintonburgh Laundry took out regular ads in the newspaper, providing some interesting clips of some neat retro advertisements, and a really cool logo in 1946:

Ottawa Journal - March 17, 1941

Ottawa Journal - December 21, 1944

Ottawa Journal - March 23, 1946

Ottawa Journal - July 6, 1946

In 1936, Eng Ho and his wife and children had left for China to visit family. Eng Ho returned to Ottawa in 1938 to resume working at the Laundry, and his wife and children were to follow soon after. However, the commencement of the war marooned the family in China. His wife would drown accidentally, and his youngest child died also, before his two eldest children were finally able to come back to Canada in 1949. Eng Ho had to save $1,8000 to bring them back. The family was re-united for the first time in eleven years in a happy ceremony at Rockliffe Airport.

Fong Ho appears to have passed away in the 1930s or 1940s, and the shop continued to be operated by the two sons Eng and Lin-Chong (and primarily Lin-Chong by the 1950s). The family was profiled in the Citizen in 1955, including a photograph taken inside the shop:

Ottawa Citizen - December 31, 1955

The Ho family even later opened a Chinese restaurant next-door at 1021 Wellington Street in August of 1957, but it accidentally burned down after a Christmas day party later that same year. It was called the Miss Mai Ho Cafe, and dedicated by Lin-Chong to his four daughters.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Governor General Jules Leger were all among the Ho's clients at the Hintonburgh Laundry. King apparently had all of his shirts laundered there.

Laundry ticket from the Hintonburgh Laundry
(Source: Canada Science and Technology Museum, 1976-0807-001)

In March of 1976, after outlasting all of the other hand laundries in Ottawa, Lin-Chong announced that the business would close at the end of April. The Journal visited and described his operations at the time: "The store is cluttered with hand-wrapped laundry bundles, there's no new-fangled contraptions at 1017 Wellington Street. Although Mr. Ho has converted most of his equipment to electricity or natural gas, reminder of another era linger. His washers, some of them with wooden drums, dryers and extractors still have the foot pedals which required leg power in the early days. And he has one old machine, manufactured in 1900, which still operates by hand and is used for putting the stiffness in collars, cuffs and nurses' caps. When he first joined the business, men's stiff collars and shirt fronts used to cost two or three cents to be laundered and starched, he remembers. "Even so they took about one and half-hours to do." Mr. Ho still rings up his bills on an old fashioned cash register, another reminder of a past era."

Lin-Chong Ho at work - Ottawa Journal - March 22, 1976

After 56 years in the laundry business, Lin-Chong Ho closed the Hintonburgh Hand Laundry in April of 1976, and helped his sons David, James and Joseph open the Lin Ho Gardens restaurant on Merivale Road later that year, with long-time client John Diefenbaker performing the opening ceremonies. Meanwhile the Museum of Science & Technology purchased all of his laundry equipment, including the one piece that dated back to 1900, for $750.

The Hintonburgh Hand Laundry was the last of its kind in Ottawa, bringing to a close nearly ninety years of an important, but nearly-forgotten industry. In his final newspaper interview in 1976, Lin-Chong Ho stated "At one time in Ottawa there were 75 Chinese hand laundries. I was one of the last. And now my business is going too. I guess someday people won't even know what a hand laundry was." So perhaps my tiny contribution to the legacy of Lin-Chong Ho, and the efforts of the other Chinese immigrants of the early 20th century, is that their important story is now shared and preserved just a little bit, through this blog.


  1. Nurses at the Ottawa Civic Hospital (and the Grace and others) used to wear starched caps and several have told me about sending the caps to the one Chinese Laundry that used to do these properly. I wonder which one it was. Thanks for this story!

    1. hi Gardencat. Indeed this must be the one. In a couple of the writeups about the Hintonburgh Laundry, it specifically mentioned how he did nurses caps, and in fact the machine dating from 1900 was a special press that he acknowledged was necessary to do just the right job on the nurses caps. Neat that they were indeed famous for this! Cheers, thanks for reading/commenting!

  2. I wonder what happened to the Hintonburgh Laundry sign. Any idea?

    1. Good question, I'm not sure. Long gone, I guess! If only the people of the 60s and 70s knew how nostalgic the people of the future would be, a lot more cool things would have survived!

  3. Hi Dave. Thanks for this really neat story. My father operated a hand laundry in Hull, Quebec for many years. I am not sure exactly when it started but it was in operation when I arrived in Canada from China, in 1954. It lasted until the mid 70's. I can definitely identify with the hard work and the equipment as I watched my father work.

  4. Thank you for the great article. I've never seen a photo of the outside of my great grandfather's laundry before.

    1. Thanks very much, I'm glad you found this column, and am extra happy to hear that it was useful to you in that way. Who was your great-grandfather? Cheers!

  5. Very interesting history which was brought to my attention in the new restaurant The Third at 1017 Wellington, attributing their well-displayed photo of the Hintonburgh Hand Laundry to you and your blog. I have greatly enjoyed reading so much of the Hintonburg and Westboro histories. Now I am trying to find the history of 1000 Wellington which was Wally Becker's Garage before the current Windmill developed condo The Eddy where I live. Any info on this site? Thanks.

  6. A very nice blog. Like the interesting history about early Chinese immigrants in Ottawa.

  7. Cleantitude is a dry cleaning service App based in Toronto. laundry toronto

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